After wrapping up work on a film about a princess, Jamaal Bradley decided to tell a different kind of story. The veteran animator was father to a young girl and he yearned to give her a new role model, an alternative vision of womanhood. Master was born from that desire.
The feature will follow Olivia, a young Black woman endowed with superpowers, as she leads her family to what she sees as a better life — only to realize that the life she’s trying to leave behind is the one she should be fighting for. The project is in development, with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse co-director Peter Ramsey onboard as executive producer. Cartoon Brew is exclusively premiering the teaser, which Bradley produced with Steamroller Studios, below:
Bradley, a former Dreamworks supervising animator and current senior animator at Valve, has form in broadening on-screen representation. His 2019 short Substance, which he co-wrote and directed (and on which Cartoon Brew served as associate producer), follows the divergent paths of two Black brothers. He was also an animator and executive producer on Netflix’s recent short Canvas.
Having come up with the idea for Master, Bradley approached his old colleague Jalil Sadool, co-founder and CEO of the Mount Dora, Florida-based Steamroller. The studio specializes in animation for games (including Fortnite), but has recently branched out into originals, notably with its short film Spice Frontier. Enthused by the project, Steamroller bought the IP from Bradley.
The action-packed teaser gives a vivid sense of the film’s tone. Aside from the superhero and martial arts films channeled in the story, the project also bears visual traces of Spider-Verse: the influence can be seen in things like the 2d effects, animation on twos, and lack of motion blur.
Below, Bradley and Sadool tell us about the project’s genesis and their plans for developing it in a fast-changing marketplace…
Cartoon Brew: Jamaal, why did you approach Steamroller? Did you have any prior relationship with the studio?
Jamaal Bradley: I wrote Master years ago after working on a very popular princess movie. My first daughter was just born and I remember thinking about what I thought would be a cool concept. By the time I finished Substance, a few more princess movies had come on the scene and my second daughter was really into them — a bit too much, in my opinion. So I decided to revisit the idea with a new perspective.
I asked my friend Rod Douglass to help me create an animatic based on this concept that was a small moment in the story. I sat on the first version and planned on animating the idea during my weekends to get it out of my head. I approached Jalil, who I’ve known for years from our Dreamworks days, to see if he could just help me render when I finished. The realistic goal was for me to finish this teaser four years from now. Jalil asked to see the animatic, and was so intrigued by what it showcased that he wanted to read the story.
This was the kicker. Jalil was blown away by the concept and offered to help in a bigger way than I expected. Jalil has a little girl as well, and being a seven-year-old, she is at that discovering-herself age. The world of Olivia quickly resonated with Jalil. One thing led to another, and Steamroller decided they wanted to acquire the IP and grow this partnership.
Once Steamroller had bought the IP, how did the studio develop it with Jamaal? Concretely, who did what on the WIP?
Jalil Sadool: When we partnered up with Jamaal, he was still the driving force behind the vision of how the teaser would feel. Our story supervisors at Steamroller pushed the ideas further, based on the original animatic. We wanted to introduce the build-up and mystery of Olivia’s abilities earlier and allow them to flow through the trailer.
When the feeling was there and the pacing felt strong, our layout team took over and translated all the 2d boards into 3d. At that point, a small part of our animation team began to dig in as well. Jamaal did the first key shots to help define the animation style. Within the first couple weeks, we brought in the animation team and production was full steam ahead.
We experimented with the animation style and decided that animating on twos would work best with the overall look and 2d effects. Our experience using a similar style on Spice Frontier came in very handy. Our challenge was maintaining a traditional 3d look while hand-painting the rims of light and effects in 2d. There was quite a bit of back and forth between our lighting lead, composting lead, effects lead, and cg supervisor. It was amazing to see the result of their incredible dedication to the project.
Our sound design team also got involved during the lighting and compositing phase. Audio is half of the feeling you get while watching a movie, and we wanted a sound that would push the emotional beats we were looking for. The music was also something that was still from the original animatic. Jamaal partnered with the same composer he used for his short film Substance: Stephen “Bud’da” Anderson.
Why did you decide to develop Master as a feature, not a series?
Bradley: When I wrote the story I was still working in feature, so part of my goal was to create something that would fill a void. A big thing was missing in feature animation for little brown girls and I wanted to help.
I have no doubt that Master could easily be tweaked to fit the mold of a series. The goal is to showcase a powerful young lady who is strong in mind and body using the fantastic elements of animation. So the format is just a means to a bigger objective. The great thing about animators and artists is that we learn to “be like water” whenever we have to. Yeah, I just referenced Bruce Lee while discussing a martial arts story — ha.
What age group is the film aimed at?
Sadool: I think we want to appeal to a good range around 10+ (PG, probably). We would be on par with films like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Big Hero 6.
Have you shown the WIP to any potential partners yet? What is your plan for this process and what challenges do you foresee?
Sadool: We can’t say much, but what we can share is that Peter Ramsey will be joining the team as executive producer. It’s very humbling to have someone of Peter’s caliber to be excited about what we are making.
Do you envision a streaming release? Theatrical? Either?
Sadool: That’s a tough question in this current market. We are all in a weird space and it seems that studios are making tough decisions as they still try to push out films. We will have to see what the landscape looks like in a few years.
Have any specific animated film(s) or series helped convince you that there’s a market for a project like Master?
Bradley: Of course, the biggest film that made us think this could be a reality is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The level of action and serious tone were relatable and believable.
Another major factor is one of the most popular forms of animation around: anime. Many of the ideas that we have set for Master are rooted in parts of Japanese animation. Many kids outside the U.S. are introduced to animation by the Japanese and a lot of the elements in those stories are truly mature.
Anime is also very popular in the U.S. and is just expanding its reach with various ways to stream. You can see the direct correlation with [Nickelodeon’s] Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra: both of these series are anime-inspired and were extremely successful. I think we have several examples to point at when it comes to the market.
The interview transcript has been edited for brevity.
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